The first time we see our hero, Erik Lanshof, he’s getting a bowl of soup poured and then smashed over his head. Then he’s on the floor with a bloody head and near concussion. It’s part of a fraternity initiation ceremony and the one delivering the blow is an upperclassman and frat chair named Guus, who will eventually become Lansford’s best friend. But for now, in the opening minutes, we see a picture of men who are privileged, free, and safe (or at least feel safe) enough that violence can be a luxury, an indulgence even. We move to scenes of tennis garden parties where the college boys listen to radio broadcasts of a not-so-distant war. They sip on comforting cocktails of gin and imagined neutrality. They make statements like “a spot of war would be exciting.”
But then WWII does come to Holland’s doorstep and Germany barges in. And the boys find themselves in the middle of a violence that charges through much deeper divisions than upper vs. underclassmen. Each of the boys and the people they encounter take on a very different role in the war, some joining the Netherlands resistance movement and others opting to join occupying Nazi forces. It becomes clear very quickly that only in wartime will you find the unlikeliest of heroes and the most inconceivable betrayals. Considering the movie was directed by Paul Verhoeven, who’s developed a trademark explicitness for violence and sexual content, the movie isn’t gorey in its violence. There are some torture scenes that will keep you queasy after the credits roll, but the biggest gut wrenches come from the story itself and the turns it takes. And from the opening hazing to a scene where a war secretary smashes a twitching fly on a windowsill, Verhoeven does an excellent job at showing how war is just the horrific extreme on a scale of commonplace human violence.
The film tells the true, self-penned story of Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (in the movie, Erik Lanshof1), a Dutch spy, RAF-pilot, and aide-de-camp to the Netherlands’ Queen Wilhelmina. He became known as “the Soldier of Orange” because of his close ties to the royal family2. Though the Soldier of Orange earned his name through royal ties, it seems the term could also mean more. He was caught between red and yellow, between a fight to the death or a fleeing cowardice, with many of his friends opting for either extreme. During the war, Roelfzema escaped a bloody fight with the Nazis and smuggled himself into Britain. There, he was part of a series of dangerous missions orchestrated by the resistance movement in London to deliver communication equipment back to Nazi-occupied Holland and bring back fellow resistance fighters. Roelfzema went on to become Holland’s most decorated WWII resistance fighter and national hero who would remain close to the royal family.
Besides the that Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema is a national hero and that his life and autobiography tell an incredibly compelling story, it seems Paul Verhoeven had even more reason to tell Roelfzema’s story. Both Hazelhoff Roelfzema and Verhoeven grew up in The Hague. They both attended Leiden University3, Roelfzema for law and Verhoeven for mathematics and physics - all degrees they would barely use. At the same time that Roelfzema was getting involved in the Dutch resistance movement in London and at home, Verhoeven was in the Hague, then the German headquarters in the Netherlands, witnessing repeated V1 and V2-rocket bombings of the nearby military base. Verhoeven’s neighbor’s house was accidently hit by bombs and his parents nearly died from friendly fire. Images of burning houses and rampant violence were commonplace, which may explain Verhoeven’s penchant for violence in his films. In any case, Verhoeven’s closeness to the material in the story comes across in the sheer effort he put behind the film’s production.
The film cost $2.5 million to produce, making it the most-expensive Dutch film ever made at the time it was created. Every scene (except for a short sequence in the RAF bomber) was filmed on location. Instead of having special effects techs on site, the explosions in the film were created by actual Dutch Marines. And in the opening mock newsreel sequence of Queen Wilhelmina and Erik Lanshof stepping on Netherlands soil after the war, film footage is intercut with original wartime footage of the real Queen Wilhelmina and Hazelhoff Roelfzema. And to up the feel of authenticity, Verhoeven got the man who did voiceover work for the original Dutch wartime newsreels to come out of retirement and record voice work for the opening sequence.
Roelfzema himself seems to have connected to the movie and recognized its strengths. After serving as an adjutant to Netherlands Queen Juliana after the war, Roelfzema actually moved to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming an actor. But when that didn’t pan out, he got involved with a Netherlands motor sports racing group and in 1970 published his autobiography. Seven years later Verhoeven made it into a film and Roelfzema and the actor Verhoeven cast to play him (Rutger Hauer) became close friends. Hauer later referred to Roelfzema as “my second father, my friend and my mentor.”
Soldier of Orange is frequently cited as one of the, if not the, best Dutch films ever made. The movie received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1980. And at the 1999 Netherlands Film Festival, it came in second place for best Dutch film of the twentieth century, second only to another Verhoeven film: Turkish Delight. It sparked interest in Verhoeven for producers to lure him to Hollywood, where he would make cult sci-fi movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers. But few of his Hollywood movies have the same sense of personal connection with the story and almost a sense of urgency. When watching Soldier of Orange, you get the sense that for all involved there’s a feeling that this story must be told. And they’re right. People should know about the soldier of orange.
Soldier of Orange at IMDB
Janet Maslin, “Dutch Offer 'Soldier of Orange': Dash and Dinner Clothes,” New York Times, (1979)
Olga Craig, “The Soldier of Orange Dies at 90,” The Telegraph, (2007).
1 Several names were changed to bring attention to the fact that elements of the story were changed so it could be adapted for film. The number of characters in particular was reduced to tell a better story.
2 As in the House of Orange-Nassau, the family behind the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, which eventually led to an independent nation state for the Netherlands.
3 Along with Albert Einstein, several other Nobel laureates, and a handful of the Netherlands royal family including Queen Wilhelmina herself, the same Queen that would Erik would accompany on her voyage back to home soil after the war.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.